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Brian and the Apocalyptic Jesus Part 2

Here I give the second of three installments of the paper I read at the Life of Brian and the Historical Jesus conference.  In this portion I deal with an issue that I have been spending a lot of time reading and thinking about over the past couple of months: the value of eyewitness testimony for establishing what really happened in the past.   The reflections here are inspired by the first episode of Brian’s adulthood in the film, where he is present, at a distance, at Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, and the people around Brian cannot make out exactly what Jesus is saying since they are so far away from him.   Rather than “Blessed are the Peacemakers,” Jesus is thought to have said “Blessed are the Cheesemakers”; and it was the Greek, not the meek, who will inherit the earth.  And so it goes.  It’s the sort of scene that is both funny and insightful — what *was* it like to hear a public speaker back in the days before there were microphones???   To deal with this question I again talk about how the film uses parody in order to make its points.

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One of the most brilliant ways parody works in the Life of Brian is by highlighting the complete implausibility of the biblical narratives, or at least the implausibility of widespread and common understandings of the historicity of the events described in the biblical narratives.  For some reason, avid Bible readers – at least in my part of the world, the American South – do not seem to ask common-sensical questions about whether a narrative in Scripture actually makes any sense if taken literally.   The Life of Brian manages to ask these questions by parodying the literal sense.

This happens right off the bat in the opening scene, Brian’s infancy narrative.  The cinematography and music, in case you have never noticed, is not simply a riff on the biblical epics of Hollywood in general; it is a hilarious and virtually plagiaristic replay of the infancy narrative of Ben Hur, and the arrival of the wisemen to worship the child Jesus.

Neither biblical account of Jesus’ infancy – the one in Matthew or the one in Luke — can be taken as a description of anything like historical reality.  One of the many problems with Matthew, on which Brian’s infancy is based, involves that implausible star that allegedly leads the wise men to the baby Jesus.  In order to illustrate the problem, I tell my students to go outside on a clear evening, look up in the sky, and figure out which star is standing over their own house.    In Brian’s opening parodic scene, the point is made much more convincingly, as the three wise men start out in the wrong house to worship the wrong Capricorn with gold, frankincense, and a balm.

Nowhere are the logistics of the biblical narrative lampooned more famously than in arguably the best known line of the movie, Blessed are the Cheesemakers.   I take this parody of the Sermon on the Mount to be making a not-so-serious but important point about the implausibility of eyewitnesses guaranteeing the historical accuracy of the Gospel narratives.

For a very long time now we have heard a lot from scholars who have wanted to emphasize the existence of eyewitnesses and their value as guarantors of the surviving traditions about Jesus.   This perspective is so wrong on so many levels that it is very hard to know even where to begin considering it.

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Brian and the Apocalyptic Jesus Part 3
Brian and the Apocalyptic Jesus Parts 1

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Comments

  1. laz  June 28, 2014

    The stoning scene is great ” nobody is to stone anyone till I blow this whistle”

  2. maxhirez  June 28, 2014

    I don’t know how it could relate to serious scholarship, but my favorite part of the movie was always Loretta, and his/her being asked here he/she would gestate a baby. Did you or anyone address the scene in any way at the conference?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 29, 2014

      Yes, it was discussed in several papers, especially Amy Jill Levine’s, who thought that it showed the popular bias against such things as women and transgendered identity, but that it unfortunately did not undermine or subvert the bias. I myself think the whole scene (colosseum and all) is hilarioius.

  3. RonaldTaska  June 28, 2014

    Good post about the reliability of eyewitnesses. There was more meaning behind the “cheesemakers” comment than I realized. Thanks.

  4. hwl  June 28, 2014

    “For a very long time now we have heard a lot from scholars who have wanted to emphasize the existence of eyewitnesses and their value as guarantors of the surviving traditions about Jesus”
    Scholars such as? Isn’t the view that eyewitness testimonies guarantee accuracy, a minority view in mainstream scholarship for much of the 20th century?

    ” But even if they were written by someone who had been there, who produced a report 20 minutes later, we still may have ended up with eschatological blessings for the cheesemakers and the Greeks.”
    Maybe for all we know, the historical Jesus did want to pronounce eschatological blessings on manufacturers of dairy products, and on the erudite and wise Greek, but the disciples misheard 😉
    It is often said, multiple attestations increase the likelihood of a saying going back to the historical Jesus. But surely all Christian traditions about teachings and actions of Jesus had to go through the historical bottleneck of the communique of early post-Easter disciples. Hence high level of multiple attestations can only take us back to the disciples, not necessarily to the historical Jesus?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 29, 2014

      I don’t know if it’s a minority position or not. But Richard Bauckham’s book on Jesus and the Eyewitnesses has been exceedingly popular in some circles!

  5. Matt7  June 28, 2014

    Oh great. So now we can’t even trust eyewitness testimony. I guess the only thing we can be certain about is that we can’t be certain about anything.

  6. MikeyS  June 29, 2014

    Hi Bart, although I have said previously that I wasn’t a fan of the Monty Python series or their contemporaries, I can see how useful this film as been in highlighting the obvious problems that you and others have raised about ancient text of any kind. I’m pretty sure the film producers or the actors would not have realised this point and were just out to get laughs from the audience. But I could be mistaken of course and just my personal opinion after watching how they operated within the genre of comedy at the time. You and the film make an excellent point about hearing what Jesus actually said as we know that its only a very few yards ie within earshot as it were when you can just about make out what someone is saying to you and so anyone claiming that crowds of thousands followed Jesus. eg feeding the 5000 is highly likely to have been a complete fabrication, never mind the Roman Soldiers having a view on that potential for a rebellion etc. I guess even 12 disciples would have a job to get close enough to hear ‘everything’?

    I wish all commentators and historical experts like yourself would just reinforce the whole problem with the NT in that no end days happened, no world wide judgement happened, the disciples and Paul were not taken up as the elect from the four corners of the world and so on. Thus Jesus and John the Baptist were just plain WRONG. Instead we get all the Christian apologists claiming his words were misinterpreted and he meant something else while reading that Paul said the time was at hand and nearer to when they first believed etc. ie There was no mistake about what was meant by those living at the time. That single incident IMO destroys the central theme of Christianity about the incarnate Jesus as God or even eternal Son. Based on the above, it seems though they ALL misheard that message!

    Thanks again for your input.

    Mike

  7. nichael  June 30, 2014

    1] An excellent mechanism for making a personal –if informal– “experiment” demonstrating the poor reliability of eyewitness-memory is provided by the easy access to old movies and television episodes on the internet. In short, I can’t believe I’m the only one who has had the experience of stumbling across a scene which I haven’t seen for 20 or more years, but of which I have an absolutely vivid memory, only to find out how much I’ve completely misremembered (dialog, actors, plot points, etc) when compared to the incontrovertible evidence of the original.

    2] Needless to say, an even more fundamental problem here is how very little most folks don’t understand, or are even aware of the _possibilities_ of, the shortcomings of their own memories. It’s usually very difficult to argue with someone tells you “Of course it’s true. I saw it with my own eyes.”

  8. Matilda
    Matilda  June 30, 2014

    What did Jesus actually say??? From what I have read about it, his sayings amounted to a few silly parables that make no sense. The rest is spin and hearsay. Why are the religious still clinging to it all? The psychology escapes me. Exposing the bible is interesting tho.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 2, 2014

      I deal with this at length in my books. You might want to start with Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

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